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State grant bolsters fight against sex trafficking

Washington County has made an investment in the effort to stop sex trafficking. In turn, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety is making an investment in Washington County.

The county is the recipient of a two-year, $125,000 sex trafficking investigations and training grant, issued by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Office of Justice Programs. The funds will be used to cover personnel costs associated with the new crime analyst position created earlier this year to combat sex trafficking in Washington County.

A portion of the funds will also be used to provide trainings for local law enforcement officers.

The grant will be split up, with $61,500 included in the 2016 budget and $63,500 planned for the 2017 budget.

"This is a two-year pilot which gave us just shy of $65,000 each year," County Attorney Pete Orput said, "to pursue a coordinated sex trafficking initiative in Washington County. This allows us to free up a prosecutor from day-to-day caseloads so they can work exclusively on long-term investigations, from the prosecution at the beginning through the end of the cases."

That prosecutor is Imran Ali, previously a member of the county attorney's office criminal division. He was promoted to head of a new major crimes division. Ali is working closely with local law enforcement agencies on sex trafficking, drug cases, and organized theft rings.

The funds from the grant allow Washington County to bring in a new attorney to pick up on the cases Ali would have otherwise been doing in the criminal division. Orput is grateful for the chance to increase his staff.

"We're buried. We're just buried," he said. "The upside is, this is a 'Give me a chance to show you what I can do with one more person, and I'll show you' kind of opportunity."

The new attorney has already been hired. Part of her job is to help work through all of the electronic ads in the metro area, and look for patterns.

The county staff has reviewed about 4,500 sex ads online since the major crimes division was created, Orput added. It's tedious work, but the results have been good. So far, six juvenile victims have been recovered through the process.

It's also helping the county to build a database for future reference.

"I think it's money well spent. I'm very reluctant to ask the board for resources unless we really need it, but I think we're getting our money's worth here. The extent of the problem is bigger than we knew it was, but now that we're paying attention to it, we're seeing just how much of a problem we have," Orput said.

Orput said his staff has also started looking at other ways to address sex trafficking in the county. In the near future, he hopes to offer trainings for hotel managers so they know what to look for and what to do if and when prostitution occurs in their buildings. The county has also created a tip line, 651-430-7825, for residents to call if they witness suspicious activity.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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